Millions of lives could be saved by the healthy effects of actions to mitigate climate change, and vice versa, according to a knighted expert on environmental health.
“Many of the strategies to decarbonize the economy can also bring near-term benefits to human health,” said Sir Andy Haines, a professor of Environmental Change and Public Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. “And emphasizing these benefits can help us to achieve multiple goals at the same time.”
Haines outlined a few of those co-benefits this week at a conference hosted by Project Drawdown and the National Council for Science and the Environment:
1 Cleaner Air
When humans burn fossil fuels for energy or burn wood for cooking, “they contribute substantially to the deaths from some of these common conditions, which we will all be familiar with: pneumonia, stroke, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung disease, and even lung cancer,” Haines said.
In a recent estimate, researchers at the Max Planck Institute found that 3.6 million premature deaths from air pollution could be prevented by phasing out the burning of fossil fuels.
2 Active Travel
Researchers in several studies found that the United Kingdom’s National Health Service could save about £20 billion ($27.2 billion) if the transport system depended less on cars and more on active modes of transportation—walking and bicycling.
“This would prevent diabetes, dementia, heart disease, stroke, and some types of cancer, all of which are related to sedentary lifestyles,” Haines said, “so most of this benefit comes from increased physical activity because far too many people in the population have sedentary lifestyles.”
3 Urban Green Spaces
Cities can reduce their carbon footprint by creating more green spaces that absorb carbon at the same time they promote recreation.
“There's good evidence for stress reduction, better general physical and mental health, improved cognitive performance, and there's emerging evidence also of benefits for children,” Haines said.
4 Rural Forest Conservation
Scientists in Borneo last year discovered a link between deforestation and the cost of health care. Their 2020 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that improving health care in Borneo—and perhaps in many other rural areas—can reduce illegal logging.
“This study showed that one of the reasons that communities in Indonesia were deforesting their local lands was actually to raise money,” Haines said, “and in some cases that was because they had catastrophic health expenditures, and they were not getting adequate health-care coverage.”
5 A Plant-Based Diet
Our food system threatens both human health and environmental sustainability, according to a 2020 report in the British medical journal Lancet. The report describes a universal healthy diet—healthy for both people and planet—based on increased consumption of healthy foods (such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, and nuts) and decreased consumption of unhealthy foods (such as red meat, sugar, and refined grains).
“They suggested this planetary health diet could help to keep us within planetary boundaries, reduce greenhouse gas emissions—particularly from ruminants, which of course are a major source of methane—and they could prevent potentially prevent ten to 11 million premature adult deaths a year by 2050.”
Haines chairs Lancet’s Commission on Planetary Health.
6 Family Planning
Access to contraception can prevent 76,000 maternal deaths per year and 480,000 newborn deaths, Haines said, in areas where contraception is unavailable. At the same time, it could reduce population pressures in areas that are rapidly developing.
“By providing access to modern contraceptives we can improve health,” Haines said, “but also we can reduce environmental pressures in the future.”
Child mortality dropped dramatically from 1970 to 2009, and a 2010 study in Lancet suggests that more than half of that drop can be attributed to the education of women. Educated women have children who are more likely to survive, and they also have fewer children overall.
“So again,” Haines said, “big benefits for human health and big benefits potentially to the environment.”
Watch Sir Andy Haines’ presentation at the NCSE Drawdown 2021 Conference: